Ancient Chess Set

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When the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new galleries of Islamic art open on Nov. 1, among the treasures on display will be one of the oldest chess sets in the world. Sort of.

The set has been dated to the 12th century, is made of stone paste and was found in Nishapur, a city in Northeastern Iran. It resembles today's sets in most respects, but two of the pieces are different, so the set is actually a precursor of the modern version of the game, whose rules mostly arose in the late 15th century.

In the museum's set, instead of queens, there are viziers, and instead of bishops, there are elephants, which were called fils, according to "Masterpieces From the Department of Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," a book about the exhibition that is being published by the museum.

The viziers and the elephants moved differently, and were less powerful, than their modern counterparts, which probably made the game slower and less exciting. The viziers could only move or capture diagonally one square at a time; the modern queen is allowed unlimited movement in any direction. The elephants moved diagonlly two squares at a time, while modern bishops can move any number of diagonal squares. The viziers could never attack each other.

Chess had started to spread to Europe a couple of centuries before the Metropolitan's Persian set was made and had already moved closer to the modern game there. The Lewis Chessmen, a trove of 93 pieces found in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis, in Scotland, which are believed to have been carved between 1150 and 1200 A.D., contain queens and bishops.

Write up taken from New York Times Arts Beat by Dylan Loeb Mcclain

Information on this set from The Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Object Name: Chess Set

Date: 12th Century

Geography: Iran, Mishapur

Culture: Islamic

Medium: Stonepaste; molded and glazed


  • Largest piece (King) H. 2 in, Diam. 2.125 in
  • Smallest piece (Pawn) H. 1.3 in, Diam. 1.14 in

Classification: Gaming Pieces

Description: This nearly complete chess set is one of the earliest extant examples in the world. The pieces are abstract forms: the shah (king) is represented as a throne; the vizier (the equivalent of the queen) is a smaller throne; the elephant (bishop) has two tusklike protrusions; the horse (knight) has a triangular knob representing its head; the chariot (rook) is rectangular wiht a wedge at the top; and the pawns are faceted hemispheres with knobs.


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